Ehud Omert‘s Kadima election win of less than a quarter of the seats in the Israeli parliament means, according to most pundits, that any coalition administration he can put together will not be long-lived enough to bring his plan to set Israel’s final frontiers by 2010 to fruition
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 243 of Feb. 24: Ehud Olmert’s Four-Year Master Plan)
Kadima, which dropped in the acting Israeli prime minister’s lap when Ariel Sharon suffered a sudden stroke, had counted on a comfortable 40-45 lead in the March 28 general election for the 120-seat Knesset.
It has won a grudging 29.
The electorate was not inspired by the strength of Olmert’s qualities as a leader. From January 4, when he stepped into the shoes of the ailing prime minister, Kadima fell in the polls by 15-20 seats. It may be said that the leaders of all three mainstream parties failed to impress. Amir Peretz barely held the line for Labor, which dropped from 21 to 20 mandates, whereas former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu presided over a disastrous fifty percent plunge in Likud’s parliamentary representation.
Many of Likud’s leading lights and supporters followed Sharon when he split the party and formed Kadima, but much more of the loss is placed at the door of Netanyahu’s failed campaign and credibility.
Despite his weaknesses, Ehud Olmert is the leading candidate to form the next Israeli government. Before the votes were all in, dickering had begun among the parties over the distribution of portfolios. But Olmert was driven by a sense of urgency that had little to do with the haggling. It came from a pile of reports containing red-hot warnings placed on his desk by Israel’s generals and intelligence chiefs in the second week of March, two weeks before the general election.
They paint a dangerous situation that calls for a swift decision to prepare a broad military action to regain extensive parts of the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian enclave which Israel evacuated last summer.
These reports underline three acute perils disclosed here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources:
Iranians are training Hamas units in Iraqi Shiite tactics
1. Hamas, which took over Palestinian government Thursday, March 30, has begun secretly retraining its military arm, the Ezz-e-din al-Qassam, in the Gaza Strip, organizing the force into special operations units on the lines of Shiite militias in Iraq. Iranian military instructors and officers have arrived to train these units in the combat and terrorist methods practiced by the Badr Force and the Wolves Brigades.
The Hamas force consists of 6,000 fighting men, to be expanded to 10,000 in the next three months as the Hamas government’s military arm. It will operate outside regular Palestinian Authority security forces. Israeli intelligence chiefs recommend military intervention to de-activate this force before it is too late and the Hamas regime becomes too strong to remove.
2. More and more non-Palestinian terrorist manpower is pouring into the Gaza Strip, a hodgepodge of Iranians, Hizballah, al Qaeda and latterly Iraqi Baathist guerrillas. The most prominent are the Iranians. They are all vying hard for a foothold on the West Bank too.
3. The Palestinian munitions industry financed by the Palestinian Authority and terrorist organizations has upgraded itself from light weapons and short-range Qassam missiles to the manufacture of heavy artillery, including 122-mm Katyusha rockets with a range of up to 30 km. Almost overnight, southern Israel’s three main towns, Beersheba, Ashkelon and Ashdod have moved into the sights of rocket-wielding terrorists in the Gaza Strip.
Ashkelon is the site of Israel’s oil port, oil storage tanks and the outlet of the Eilat-Ashkelon oil pipeline. Located in Ashkelon and Ashdod are two of Israel’s four power stations. Since Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip, Palestinian terrorists have been using locations once inhabited by Israelis to shoot their missiles directly at the Ashkelon power station as a daily routine.
Sunday, March 26, they finally hit a workshop in the station compound, causing damage but no casualites.
Their new weapons capabilities (See HOT POINTS below), which they are developing at top speed, mean that in a couple of months, the Palestinians will be able to fire hundreds of upgraded rockets from the Gaza Strip at several Israeli cities – unless they are stopped.
To counter the approaching peril, Israeli military chiefs and heads of its security services strongly advise a military campaign based on sending two armored divisions into the Gaza Strip for ground raids to purge the terrorist hotbeds and firing sites located in the refugee camps on the outskirts of Gaza City, Beit Hanoun, Beit Lahiya, Khan Younes, Deir al Balah and Rafah.
They will also have to wipe out the command centers most of the terrorist elements have set up inside these Palestinian towns.
A defense minister needed before the government is in place
This operation should be akin to the Defensive Shield offensive the Israeli army conducted to eradicate Palestinian terrorist hotbeds in the northern West Bank in April and May 2002. No similar offensive was ever carried out in the Gaza Strip.
When it is over, the prime minister’s military and security advisers recommend keeping armored contingents and commando units at strategic points in and around the Gaza Strip for rapid deployment in response to incoming intelligence of new terrorist cells springing up or weapons fabrication revived.
This tactic is currently used for West Bank, where Israeli units stay close enough to the towns and hotbeds to keep terrorists at bay, bar their path into Israel and pounce on clandestine munitions production.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources reveal that the IDF has begun preparing for this operation, expecting an order to come down from the new prime minister after his government is firmly in place.
For Olmert, such an operation is fraught with difficulties.
Last summer, he was Ariel Sharon’s most ardent supporter for evacuating the Gaza Strip. If he orders the army to go back in again, he will have to work hard to explain why a major military operation has become necessary less than a year after the pull-back which was heralded at the time as the key to improving national security.
Another difficulty for the designated prime minister is that he lacks any background in military affairs.
Finally, he must find a new defense minister whom he can trust to handle a large-scale military campaign for which he as prime minister will be ultimately responsible.
A sign of the high importance he attaches to finding the right man for defense was the meeting our political sources report took place Tuesday night. Two hours after the exit polls were released with early results of the general election, Olmert’s representatives were secretly closeted with Major-General (Res.) Ami Ayalon, a senior figure of the opposition Labor party, and offered him the defense portfolio.
The offer was made without the knowledge of the Labor leader and before even coalition talks had begun.
Ayalon comes with high credentials. As a former Shin Beit director, commander of the Israel Navy and a naval commando expert, he has a strong military background and experience in fighting terror.